Born in 1950s London to Polish immigrants who fled a Russian concentration camp during World War II, Lech Kowalski grew up in an environment of nomadic displacement and adjustment.
His family finally settled in the post-industrial Rust Belt suburban town of Utica, in Upstate New York. In his teens, Kowalski received a Super-8 camera and, when 14, made his first film, The Danger Halls, about high school potheads. By 1971, Kowalski had left Utica for New York City, where he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. The cinéma vérité works of Shirley Clarke and Tom Reichman are considered to be among his greatest influences. With the NYC underbelly as his guide, he had shot and directed by age 25 more than a dozen porn loops and, in 1977, completed his first feature-length film, Sex Stars, a documentary about NYC porn stars.
Themes such as the punk movement, homelessness and substance abuse would come to perpetually infect his documentaries, with films like Rock Soup (1991), Gringo (1985), the monumental Sex Pistols documentary D.O.A. (1981) and Born To Lose: The Last Great Rock and Roll Movie (1999), about musician Johnny Thunders.
Kowalski later would turn his attention to the aspect of his own roots and NYC history with the trilogy “The Fabulous Art of Surviving”. The Boot Factory (2000) intimately documents a group of boot-making Krakauer Punks, while On Hitler’s Highway (2002) takes the viewer on the road with them along the oldest highway in Poland, built by Adolf Hitler as an invasion route to the East. His award-winning final chapter of the trilogy, East of Paradise (2005), brings Kowalski’s lived worlds together: his mother’s stories of her deportation into a Soviet labour camp intertwined with the director’s historical reflection as transported via his filmic journey through the NYC underground in the 1970s and ‘80s.
I interviewed Lech Kowalski in Paris at the Café de la Musique in May 2007.
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Jennifer Jones: Maybe we can start with something reflecting on your recent experience of being in America. You just got back yesterday after a month of researching for your new film project. You were telling me before that there are not really any interesting film journals in the States. What is your experience with alternative film culture in terms of publications in America?
Difficult question to start with! As far as I can know, the most interesting alternative stuff is happening on the internet.
Yeah, like blogs. But I’m tired of blogs a little bit too. There’s something about reading it in a magazine form that is more exciting.
The blog thing is maybe more age-related. It can be interesting when you want to read something quick, more news-related. But if it’s something more substantial … I have a hard time reading a long text in the internet anyway. One or two pages. First of all, it’s nice to print it out. I’d like to print it out …. words on paper.
So what are the discourses, or sub-discourses that are going on in film in the States that you’ve picked up on? How are people are writing and talking about film? In Europe, say in France, for years there’s been an element of exchange about film, an established dialogue or discussion via publications. Although some may disagree, there are some in Germany, like Revolver, which are attempting to counter that. What’s happening in America?
I’ve been thinking about that. One of the problems in America in terms of discourse about movies, for the most part, is that the discourse level is quite low and is primarily organized around Hollywood films. So it’s not that interesting to me. Even with more alternative Hollywood films, it’s the same thing. I think that a lot of people in America probably don’t even know what a movie is anymore. They know what the product ‘movie’ is. All this excitement about Pirates of the Caribbean[: Dead Man’s Chest, Gore Verbinski, 2006] [Jones laughs] … No, no I’m serious, from a lot of different people coming from all sides of film. People that you might think are ‘cool’, have a different stance – they’re actually excited by that kind of shit. Really. However, there are little pockets which I have come across, people who really love cinema and they are involved in creating newsletter kinds of publications.
No, print. Self-published.
Like a ‘zine’ scene?
Yeah, and I think those people create this for themselves in order not to go crazy. Because there is nothing else available to them. They are frustrated. So on one level it’s done out of frustration. The writing is not necessarily the best, but is about trying to keep a certain discourse alive that has no real large reader population. Maybe 40-50, even 100 people, are interested in it and they read about it. It’s like keeping it in the family. And I also think this is true of music as well. Like with little music scenes. There are quite a few of them and especially in places that are not far away from the big cities, like from New York. Like if you go to Upstate New York, or even Connecticut, there are little pockets of people and places where New Yorkers move to, to run away from New York City. They bring with them this urban culture and then you have these little sub-scenes, cultural places that mushroom out here and there, around cafés, bars, clubs. I know of a few clubs where they have this Friday-night jazz thing happening. But they start early because at 8 o’clock at night the jazz guys come in and play from 8-10, then at 11 the rock ‘n’ rollers come in, or whatever is going on. But they have this little slot and you have these characters, people who are devoted to their little scene, they come out, you know. And these guys, they don’t make much money. If they make 100 bucks in one night, that’s a lot.
Without passing the hat around?
Yeah! [Laughs.] I went to a bunch of places that offer these kinds of things. They exist but they are as far away from a commercial kind of reality as you can get. They only exist because either the owner or the bartender happens to like this kind of music and wants to keep this thing going. There’s like a small need for it, not a big one. It’s like all these micro-realities. I think the interesting communication and activity in America takes place in these micro-realities, a micro thing here, there.
What other mechanisms do these people use to keep their ‘realities’ together: for example, exclusion? Are these new communities? Like families as you mentioned before? Would you say it’s related to a fan reality? How much, for example, does being a fan play a role in such activities? I think this actually ties in with the types of communities, protagonists you have chosen for your films – there is an element of fan culture in them. For example, punks are fans in a way, but Punk was actually quite ‘big’. How do you draw the bridge between macro- and micro-realities and the representation of them?
That’s an interesting question. For example, let’s say the big thing that unites people, brings them to the club that night, is music: you know a group of people are into, say, John Zorn – you know John Zorn?
Okay, then you have like a group of folks going: “Yeah, yeah, we’re into John Zorn.” Okay, so probably everybody who’s in that little club that night for those two hours is into John Zorn, so that’s that unifying characteristic, but with them, it’s also like, “Oh yeah, this guy plays like this guy did, like Charlie Mingus did, or whoever, and this guy has that style like that guy …” They’re not fans of these guys, that’s not fan talk, but they are supporting them, they just want this live music. So, they are organized by bigger names in terms of being aware of them, but they are not necessarily fans of the individuals who are playing. It’s kind of stratified that way.
I think that a lot of these people are also unified by what I would call ‘Anti’ attitude. Whatever is Anti: Anti-Hollywood, Anti-Corporate Music. Because everyone is so fed up with it then they’ll go there, anywhere because it’s ‘Anti’. And, through this, they may find some other ways to connect to themselves. Not necessarily because they like the music that they are listening to a lot, but because they actually just feel comfortable in an ‘Anti’ environment.
But isn’t that what it has always been about, creating ‘Anti’ environments, other spaces, ways of getting out? Has this really changed or just gotten more localized, even more organized?
Yeah, true. But there used to be more anti-realities like in New York and L.A. where you had a bigger scene. It was macro. People that were into Punk, for them, New York had a big Punk scene so people gravitated, migrated, to N.Y. to hang out there also because of the music. You don’t have that on a big scale anymore. It’s so much smaller, so it’s different to what it used to be.
There’s also a lot of little art galleries that I noticed while I was back in the States in the small towns outside of N.Y. Sure, N.Y. has galleries, but I am not interested in N.Y. anymore in terms of ‘culture’. I don’t think N.Y. is where real culture is happening in America right now. It’s a corporate kind of culture – art culture – I mean, and there are galleries on the West Side; they exist. But, there’s a lot of art happening outside of New York. I saw this guy’s work in Utica, N.Y. He was selling his work for 300 – 400 bucks and they were really interesting paintings. I think these people have something to say that doesn’t necessarily have to be told or sold in the big city, in N.Y. That’s the way it used to be: let’s go to L.A., San Francisco, N.Y. and make a score. But even that has become more difficult and people are seeking alternative ways to take care of themselves, to get by. These little micro-scenes, art scenes, music scenes, whatever, that are springing up in the small towns around America, outside the urban corporate centre, my guess is that’s where the real revolution is going on. But it’s not a revolution in terms of taking over the dominant culture; rather it’s more about people needing to have a spiritual life that they can relate to themselves – between themselves. It’s really about spiritual reality.
Family then, community? Which is what small-town life is founded on anyway.
So it used to be “gonna make it big in the big city” but do you think it’s now about city folks re-appropriating the country? Cultural slumming? Is it really about urban versus rural?
I think so, to a certain degree. But I don’t think going to the country is really appealing to the city folks because they are too involved with trying to make a living and keep up and pay the rent. So, they don’t even have time to go out there for too long. But I really think there are very separate realities going on in these rural areas. I know people who will go to N.Y. from upstate [N.Y.] for a weekend a few times a year to get that kind of city buzz and energy, and then they go back to their own reality and have to deal with it. I had a conversation with somebody from upstate recently and he’s from a small town, Utica, but he goes to Rochester because it’s a bigger city and there’s more happening there. You know, Rochester [N.Y.] is interesting – it is where the Eastman Kodak industry is located. IBM has a big infrastructure located there. Although, Kodak is in trouble right now. But Rochester has a population of about 250,000 people and it has some severe racial problems and no one knows, for instance, of certain kind of realities. Here’s one for example: there’s a curfew there at 11pm for kids under 18 years of age. They can’t go out because of the violence or whatever. That’s intense and limiting and you have to ask, “What does that mean?” I can’t imagine what that means. It’s just weird …
So, Rochester has really a pretty big alternative art scene. This friend of mine who goes to Rochester. He’s got this younger sister who lives there and he’s trying to convince his sister that she should like Rochester because there’s a great scene going on there. He’s trying to teach her that there is something of value in her local art scene. I told my friend [from Utica] that he should also think of Utica that way, sure Utica is smaller, but there is actually a valuable art scene going on there as well. You don’t need to escape from there. So maybe it’s about people appreciating what they have in their communities. You can live in Utica, you can live in Rochester for much less money than living in N.Y. And people do consider this.
What about filmmaking in these smaller towns? What kind of activity did you notice there?
Everybody is interested in filmmaking because of video. It’s weird. People don’t think in terms of experimental ideas anymore. It’s not experimental with a capital ‘E’. It’s more like, “Let’s make a movie”, but there is no culture of experimental films like there used to be in the ‘60s and ‘70s anymore in the States. Or even like the New York independent-scene in the ‘70s and I think it is a lack of cultural, even historical education – the discourse again – you know, some younger people in these places know about Stan Brakhage, albeit very few people, but he’s so far away from something that they think could be experimented with. It’s like technology and the corporate mentality has destroyed something vital – a thread between histories. That people are relearning things and thinking that what they are producing is ‘original’ yet; in fact, it’s already been done. They had an alternative art festival in Utica and I saw the films and artwork that was being made there, photography and stuff. These artists seem to not be connected to American art history or film history, or photographic history. To a tradition. They are on their own, rediscovering the wheel and are not making a progression in culture.
In their own culture? At home?
Yeah, they are not plugging into something they could have plugged into, carrying it and building on those roots. They are doing things in an isolated way.
Because of a lack of information, historical reflection or even reverence? Maybe connection to the city?
Yes. But also a lack of curiosity. Sure, they are curious maybe by nature because they are artistic, but they are curious in the context of corporate reality. Corporate reality is actually designed to destroy curiosity because everything is about consumption, the final product and getting it. Therefore, they probably think about the final product more than anything else – more than the process or how to get there. And the final product is maybe to make a Hollywood film or something, I dunno. A lot of folks in these small towns tend not to even have exposure to any other types of films, again the lack of historical background. There are often no cinemas that even play an alternative, non-Hollywood film in these towns. Okay, maybe the Eastman Film Museum. But how many people go to those screenings and WHO goes to them? It’s like the choir singing to the choir. What about all the fucking sinners? What happened to them? But I think that America is really so culturally dead and there are these little pockets around re-awakening. There’s a lot of enthusiasm that these people bring to this, but they have the problem of how to make money with their art. So these people do other things to cover that and then they do their art. But it’s often so isolated, so insulated.
But that is also what perhaps makes it interesting: the lack of exposure and then the curiosity and artistic creative process, discovery and product that comes from that isolation? It seems a bit of a Catch-22. On the one hand, the lack catalysing the curiosity; on the other, the dilemma of getting it out there, making a living, finding a niche; the ‘threat’ of losing your edge, selling out. How do you solve the dilemma?
True. And you can’t solve the dilemma, impossible. You know we were just talking about the internet and the internet has become so corporatised, so in your face with advertising and just so much that people have become even too lazy to explore all the alternative things available to them on the internet. And it exists there. The internet can be like a mecca of alternative possibilities, realities, environments. Then there are the YouTube realities too. You have to look for it though. And most people don’t look for it. The internet generally has an overall corporate kind of look. It’s cold.
Maybe I can back you up there. You mentioned YouTube. What do you think about the YouTube reality as a platform for presentation and a forum for getting visual stuff out there? There’s quite a lot of discourse, theoretical, and the like going on about it. How it is changing the face of visual culture in general, film and format – for example, with the genre of ‘short film’ or ‘experimental film’ – and questions of quality and piracy. Are people tuning out or tuning in with YouTube? All the world’s a stage. Anyone can make a film and put it on YouTube.
Well, I guess it remains to be seen what happens with it. I just think it is another addition to the palette. You have filmmaking, Hollywood filmmaking, video, underground, unlimited ways. Then you have YouTube, just adding on to all that. It’s kind of interesting in a strange way – news that anyone can put out there. Like a little special report about anyone’s insanity. The only problem I have with YouTube is that is so undisciplined in terms of finding something on there. You only have so much time in your day [Laughs]. How can you really find anything? Okay, so four thousand people have hit on this one, so this particular thing must be good, which generates other people looking at it. What does that mean? It’s like creating an instant demographic. What does it say? How do you make money with it? Corporations are making money with it because it’s getting all these hits and selling advertising space. So, maybe somebody will become ‘famous’ because of YouTube, because of some crazy thing they did, and that may filter in to Hollywood or wherever. Everyone is looking for an angle. The image is so tiny.
Yes, the quality question of the image and how this reflects on filmmaking. You mentioned it opening up a space to display private moments of insanity or whatever. A kind of quick-fix documentation – how do you see this relating to styles of documentary filmmaking? The investment involved in researching a film, getting the funding, striving for a kind of quality?
If you compare it to the history or art, you have people that paint with oils, there’s collage … It’s just another medium, a tool, and I think it’s very valid for exactly that reason. It’s hard to compare it to something where you invest a lot of time and research to make a real film. But it doesn’t mean that it’s less important. It’s like a little sketch. You can try stuff out and learn from it, get an image across and an idea. I do think that if I was 18 and I was interested in this kind of æsthetic, I would probably find my group of people through YouTube – returning to the ‘fanzine’ reality. But it’s like a visual fanzine world on the internet. I don’t want to put it down. It has obvious limitations. It’s like the drum [pounds on the table] people are hearing it around the world quickly. There are definite things I don’t like about it. Like when stuff is stolen from movies and put on there. I’ve seen some of my films on there partitioned into 12 sections even.
Your stuff is on there?
Yeah, then you have to chase after these guys to take it off because you’re losing money because your DVDs aren’t selling … that kind of stuff. That’s a downside. On the other hand, when I think about it, that’s kind of interesting too. A weird stealing. They’re ‘stealing’ from me, but I would say if they do that to a shitty Hollywood film – I’m all for it! [Laughs.] So where are the moral implications here?
Where’s the revolution?
Yeah! I happen to think that if you’re fucking around with some corporation, then I don’t care! ‘Cause they make a lot of money and they are gonna make it no matter what. But if you are fucking with somebody’s basic lifeblood … Take, for example, the Dee Dee Ramone DVD [Hey Is Dee Dee Home?, 2003]: we released 15,000, which isn’t much. So if they are ripping that off, that means they are taking money out of my pocket … well, kind of. So, maybe you sell a thousand less DVDs and you make a few thousand dollars less money. I dunno. In a way it’s cool that they are ripping you off, but I would still like to make the money! It’s getting kind of complicated. It’s great that someone finds the films interesting enough, the images, to put on YouTube, which means more access. Yet it can cut across another territory for the original artist. This is the price of progress. But I don’t think that any one medium is going to destroy cinema. It’s all part of the bigger collection of visual communication. There is a revolutionary aspect that I appreciate. It’s non-exclusive, not elitist.
ODILE [KOWALSKI’S WIFE]: Yes, but it is in a way. You have to have a computer first … that’s a privilege.
KOWALSKI: That’s true, but almost everybody has computers now.
ODILE: Not everyone around the world.
KOWALSKI: Where? Tell me where they don’t have computers …
ODILE: Okay, in our reality … but …
It is certainly a pre-requisite for access.
KOWALSKI: Well a pre-requisite for making movies means you better have a camera, too!
Going to the movies actually isn’t that cheap either, speaking of access for everyone. Some movie tickets, especially in cities, can be really expensive, up to 10 – 12 bucks. Hell, some concerts are cheaper!
Okay, but let’s get back to your filmmaking, the basics. I am interested in the ‘punk’ attitude or posturing of your filmmaking as a point of departure and maybe even method, not only as a topic in the films. For nostalgia’s sake – how was it then and now? What is, what was punk? What’s left over?
It was never that self-conscious. It’s not like I sat down then, or today, and said: “Okay, I’m gonna make a punk movie today.” All my movies, right from the beginning, even before the punk thing happened, were just forms of expression that needed to get out, to get it done.
Why was film the medium for you for these expressions?
I studied art to a certain degree from a very young age. I liked the ‘idea’ of art, but was never a really good painter, or sculptor, or a great writer, but was good enough in all those things to have an æsthetic basis and create. Film was just the thing that made me excited. It’s that simple. It was not like me thinking, “Oh, I can make a great film.” It was the other way around; the medium itself made me excited about expressing something. And so I looked into it more deeply from that point of view. When I made my first movie …
The Danger Halls, which you made when you were 14, right?
Yeah, I made that on Super 8, which was like the alternative medium then. And it was kind of expensive in the context of reality. It was a two-and-a-half-minute film. You had to send the cartridge in to be developed. It was limited and kind of expensive for me at that age. If you shot something that was like 10 cartridges long, it placed an economic burden on you! The problem was learning how to create with Super 8 beyond just shooting it. I was interested in editing and manipulating the images, right away, without really knowing what that meant. When I decided to make these films, it wasn’t like I tried to duplicate something I’d seen in the mainstream. I shot some footage, wrote a little story about kids being oppressed in high school because they were smoking pot. I had some kids act in the film.
So, it was actually a little fiction film?
A little fiction film, yes. But built around reality, not fantasy. It was what I thought the main ‘problem’ at that time in school was. I knew I needed some music, so I used this song, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, by Iron Butterfly, which was a 20-minute song. I thought, “I want to make the film longer. The song is 20 minutes long. This is cool.” Then I edited the film to this music.
The music came first?
Yeah, I needed something long! It was simple. You have a projector, you have to drop a needle on the record and the two have to work together. [Laughs.] I didn’t want to take the needle off! It was like pure discovery via practicality. The creative part for me then as a kid was editing these images. I knew nothing about editing, nothing at all. And with Super 8, you had those little machines you would buy, a little editor thing. But with this film, my first one, I didn’t have one of those machines. Either I couldn’t afford it, or it didn’t exist in the city where I grew up – couldn’t buy it at the drugstore. What I did was that I edited the footage with a razor blade, in those little Super 8 slices, splices that you buy – those little plastic things. And I edited by looking at the images against a window and splicing them together. I put scenes together, not really understanding how long something is, how short, and looking at it for the first time to this piece of music and I made an amazing discovery. An image wound up in there upside-down because I made a mistake. It was reversed. When I saw that, I got excited. It showed me that something else is possible, that I didn’t understand. I never thought about it before, you know, when you go to a movie, everything is always …
In the right place?
In the right place, the right way, perfectly constructed. You never think about these ‘accidents’. I left the upside-down image that way and people thought it was on purpose! Discovery! It opened up film for me. That moment always sticks in my head as pivotal for me about what film can literally do.
The other thing I discovered then was about the music aspect – that it has a certain rhythm that can accentuate the feeling of a scene. I’m not talking about a certain moment in the scene where you hear a trombone or a piano, I’m talking about beats. Rock ‘n’ roll has certain beats, right? You always have a beat. To rock ‘n’ roll, this is very specific. Sometimes my edits would fall into place on a beat and that was also like a discovery.
Okay, these are ‘trivial’ discoveries, but BIG little discoveries for entering into this world. That’s also what I really liked about filmmaking. I had studied sculpture, and you can touch film, manipulate it. I liked the mechanics of it, the projector, the record player – a very tactile experience. That physical experience of film remained with me, even now.
Even with digital film that is less tactile? How have you found ways to translate that?
I’ve found ways to do that … I like to put my fingerprint on a film, not literally, but in a way that I say, “This could only be made by me.” For instance, when I started working in video, I wasn’t very happy with it. Up until then, most of my films were in 16mm and 35mm. That is just so beautiful. Video is not beautiful. Okay, it can be beautiful, but you have to learn how to deal with it.
When I made The Boot Factory, what I did was I found there were things I could do in the film that would enhance a certain feeling in viewers that they are not aware of. Again, I could only do this with video, or with digital manipulation [computer]. At the apex of every movement in a scene in The Boot Factory, I would take out a frame. So you have the apex and the opposite of this. Like, if somebody is putting their hand up in the air, I would take a frame out there at the moment where the hand is starting to go down. And when the hand went down, I would take a frame out of there. I did this slowly over a period of many months. I did this at the apex of a lot of movements – a camera panning, somebody walking. Because it is only one frame, you don’t see it that clearly, but when you are watching the film you can feel it. A weird minute absence. Fucking with the 30- or the 24-frames-per-second standard.
The other thing I did in The Boot Factory was that I shot in NTSC and Pal and High 8 and Digital and, as the film progresses, there is visually ‘better’ quality. These are not really little things, they are intrinsic to the concept of making of the film. They create a feeling that you come away with.
Now that you mention it, the film becomes visually, æsthetically clearer, even brighter – in colour even, at a point where the punks, the junkies, their lives and stories really start to fall apart. Was that intentional? Is that what you are talking about, this feeling?
Exactly. In this film, the beginning transports this kind of dream of being a rock ‘n’ roll star, right? Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what the film was like in the beginning, everything is working out, everything’s great. They are making their boots, having a good time, even though it doesn’t look like a good time to many people, in fact it was for them. I could feel that. And that part of the film is in black and white. More raw, visually and with the equipment. Then at one point it switches to colour, more classical. The moment where it turns to colour is the moment where the structure of the story shifts and problems arise. The problems are filmed more classically. Towards the end it gets very classical. That was intentional.
When I started to make this film, the first thing I did was order some 16mm film stock from Warsaw. They delivered it and I shot some scenes and it wasn’t working out that well. For a lot of reasons, economically, film is expensive. So I realized, “Let’s change something.” In the beginning, I tried one thing and it didn’t work out. We even got some film stock, that is, title film stock that has an ASA of like 10 or something, where you need a lot of light. I still have that footage in the fridge. I never developed it. Just didn’t spend the money on it. The idea was always to experiment with it in a certain kind of way. As I started shooting, I actually started setting up cameras on black and white, so I didn’t have the opportunity to make it in colour. And then the digital stuff was in colour.
And how was it with the sound? The film has a really unique sound quality I think. The dialogue almost feels a little bit grainy and gritty, like the music the guys are playing. Did you do any kind of intentional manipulation, like you did with the visual frames, to underscore the feeling you wanted to achieve?
Yes. I played with sound a lot in that film. All my films actually. I work on the sound a lot, even though it may, to some, not seem that way. I’m not purist, like in a cinéma vérité kind of way, pure sound, pure image. I like to play, but not cheat. For instance, I rarely like musical scores in films, in documentaries. As soon as you put music over a scene, generally speaking, it kills what’s going on in the scene because the music creates an artificiality, which detracts from the reality. You are robbing that reality or drowning it out, making something visually palatable because the music creates a fake rhythm. What I do in my films, when I am editing, I’ll take, say, a classical piece of music or dub, or whatever, and I’ll lay it on to the scene and I’ll edit the scene to that. After that, I take the music away and am left with the scene.
So you use music as a tool to guide your editing, working process, like for rhythmic inspiration?
That’s it. It really works. It’s has a power and something mathematical about it. Like a 4th dimension. It helps me to rediscover new things in the footage. When I get tired of the music, I’ll take it away, and then all the sudden I’ll see other things in the footage. One of the problems with making documentaries is to be able to find a way to continue to make discoveries in the material. Discovering things in the material that make you fall in love with the scene in new ways so that it has relevance. That’s not always that easy with documentary. So using the music that way is a creative technique that is very tactile and real.
And the editing process? How do you edit? How does it effect your material, your story, editing digitally?
One of the problems with editing on an Avid, a computerized system, is the storytelling. I started doing this with Avid in 1993 or ‘94. I found it to be an odd transition. Everything could be done so fast, so quickly, and you could just change things constantly, which was enticing, yet it did shift my filmmaking, my narrative process. After a while, I even found myself getting lost in the changes! It’s very dangerous to keep changing things. You have to stick with one idea, to the end. When you are cutting celluloid, you can’t change things around that often. Very impractical. It might sound odd, but I think celluloid made for more consequential stories in films, exactly because of the limitations with editing. With the possibilities of endless change that digital editing offers, a lot of films seem to me to be without direction, without a line. You can see it. Often they are not fully thought out, like the way you have to think through a film when you are dealing only in celluloid, because you only have so many opportunities to do something with that material. It’s changed the processes of filmmaking. It’s like finding the right ideas to match the technology.
Experimental film, for example, works very well with digital, of course. Technology is meant to be fucked with, which people don’t want to do. And I don’t like ‘perfect’ sound. I like things that are blurry and out-of-focus. It adds to a greater dimension. The dream of the film – I like the idea of films being like dreams. That’s why I don’t like a lot of contemporary documentaries because there are so many that are purely ‘information’ orientated, not about exploring something beyond the information. Michael Moore, for example, although that might not the best example. Sure, he’s an Okay film-comedian, got that down. But it’s about another kind of manipulation, manipulating the information, giving the information the priority. All the stuff I don’t like to do. For him, it’s the ‘message’ that is most important in the end.
What is his message, actually? Personally, I don’t like Michael Moore’s films; they make me aggressive and not because of the message, but because of the method.
I have a hard time, too.
His fuzzy lines between truth and justice and the American way. He thinks he’s being revealing, investigative and clever. It’s no better than The O’Reilly Factor or some right-wing talk-show host. The tactics have the same feel, only dressed up in the liberal bullshit clown routine, which has just as much manipulation involved. He is just as hooked on the labels: liberal and conservative. There’s no real critical examination there, nothing radical … But speaking of telling the truth, a tricky question in documentary, which makes me think about Born to Lose, your Johnny Thunders film. An entire film about Johnny but not one interview with him, him telling it like it is. Why did you decide to not include any interviews? Was it because he was so whacked out on drugs and not very eloquent? It’s odd, but without the interviews there’s the slight feeling that a myth about him is still being perpetuated, an aura. Did want to keep that alive?
Johnny Thunders and Michael Moore, an interesting combination!
That’d be a film! Johnny and Mike do the tango!
Yeah! I don’t know what Michael Moore is interested in, let him speak for himself. But what I get from his films is that he’s trying to tout himself as a cultural warrior. Which is okay, but he’s not a creative person in that sense. He uses cinema to fight some system; it’s his tool. But the problem that I have with his techniques is that he’s using the same techniques, as you said, as the right-wingers, the ‘Bad Guys’, are using. At the end of the day, what’s the truth?
Let’s leave it alone, it’s not that interesting to me. What’s more interesting to me is the Johnny Thunders question and that’s an important question because if all that Johnny Thunders had going for him – okay, he had a certain kind of charisma and talent – but the only thing he really had going for him was his myth. Now, all the interviews I saw with him, when he spoke on camera, all these interviews would have contributed to the structure of his myth if I had included them in the film. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with perpetuating the Johnny Thunders myth, because that film was not meant to be like a dissection of “How bad Johnny Thunders’ life is” or “How bad it is to be a drug addict”, etc. All that stuff speaks for itself. The idea for the film is to get someone to feel what it would be like to be around Johnny Thunders and his performances, to be in that reality. That was more important to me in terms of conserving the history of that time. Which is what I would like to do or have done. Not manipulating the history of that time. It’s like that with my film D.O.A. about The Sex Pistols. It’s not meant to be an exposé about ‘punk’. I was considering the viewers and that they experience MY involvement with that music, sneaking cameras around.
Yes, and that raises a central question in documentary: objectivity. There is no such thing in documentary filmmaking.
Exactly. Why should there be? When you watch D.O.A., you don’t know how many problems we had making that movie! But you will feel it, and I wanted that. It is very special. That’s what I think art is about. Something talks to you and I think that’s objective and direct, and that’s what makes for good cinema.
Some of my favourite cinema comes from the Italian Neo-Realists. They are like documentaries to me, not officially, but in a way. I was interested in evolving my films in that tradition. But my films are not just about information – there is the blur between fiction, or storytelling, and documentary. It’s finding that balance. When the information in my films comes out, it’s secondary. And it is not linear, like about “This guy married this person, and this guy fucked that person”, etc. It’s not about trying to EXPLAIN to someone what happened; it’s about immersing someone in a reality and doing it in a way that is æsthetically exciting or pleasing so that it forms a structure of its own, and so the audience can hang on to something for 90 minutes, be engaged and not bored.
The comparison between the Johnny Thunders film and D.O.A.: both are kind of ‘rise-and-fall’ stories. The titles tell it all – the fate and outcome before you even see the films: born to lose and dead on arrival …
That’s true. Didn’t think of it that way.
In terms of rise-and-fall tales, there’s something really exciting and powerful to see the ‘interview’, if you can call it that, with Sid and Nancy. That footage is so rare. How did that moment come about?
The decision is to make a documentary about a subject and then you have to have luck. And you make your own luck a lot. With the Sid and Nancy situation, it was a certain kind of luck, luck based on the fact that The Sex Pistols broke up! I was lucky that it was at its end. I was lucky that my producer committed suicide, because he wanted to make a different kind of film than I did. I was lucky that Sid and Nancy had no money and called us because they wanted to say something, and they thought we were going to pay them some money. Actually, they wanted to do a porno film. So, I was lucky for all those things. I mean, maybe I should have shot them doing a sex scene.
They really wanted to do a sex scene?
Yeah. There’s a scene where she’s taking her blouse off. That was the beginnings of going in that direction. But I didn’t do that; I was idealistic at that point. Maybe now, I would have done that, like, okay, let’s see what happens. I wouldn’t have just done it like a straight-up porno, but it would have been like Porno Plus, you know? [Laughs.] But with Sid and Nancy, I couldn’t go there. It would have been like committing a mortal sin for me.
So you told them no?
I said, “No.” And they were disappointed. They only wanted 200 pounds to do it. But that was not the only reason why they wanted to do that scene; they wanted to get their story out. They needed attention, too. The attention was on the fact that The Sex Pistols broke up and they were hiding out. They were not interested in giving attention to the ‘Big Media’ because the big media wasn’t really interested in them at that point. It was quite depressing when we shot that because everything was falling apart. Two guys were in South America, everything had ended. You felt like it was the end of Punk. You have to remember though that it was the end of Punk in the context of a lot of other ‘endings’. Culturally, you felt like: What can we do now that this is over? If our scene Punk is dead, then what is alive?
The 80s! New Romantic!
Agh! Everything seemed so fucked up with that ending. We made this excitement and now this is dead? Man, we’re fucked! So it was a depressing environment. Everyone was depressed knowing that it’s going to fall apart. Fall apart into what? Your potential record contract, the whole punk fashion thing … people were tired of the punk thing.
With your lucky streak, did you think it was lucky that you caught the tour in America at its end? Because I think what is also fascinating about D.O.A. is that you filmed it [The Sex Pistols tour] in America. You know, I think of The Beatles and their tour in America, the reaction from fans, the hype.
Again, I was lucky there. I couldn’t have done that in England, even though I was born there. I’m not British culturally. So if I had gone to England to make a punk movie, it would have been very different. They came onto my turf. And that was good. It was very naïve to think that we could actually pull it off. But naïveté goes a long way when you are creative. It’s probably the best weapon you can have. Because if you knew the problems you were going to have and you can figure everything out before it happens, then why even make the film? In my naïveté, I didn’t contact Warner Brothers to make a movie. We just shot it.
You just waltzed onto the scene and set up shop? You didn’t even say to any managers or anyone that you wanted to make the film?
I just showed up at the club and started filming and then eventually asked them. Not in the beginning. A lot of that had to do with my producer who was a guy who was a very important American anarchist. He had started a magazine called High Times. When he was publishing High Times during that period, he was also interested in all the sub-cultures, punk included. I met Andy Warhol through him and he introduced me to a lot of people. He was involved in a project with Andy Warhol …
Let me back up a bit and explain how I met him. I wanted to make a film about the punk scene in N.Y. So I wrote a few stories. I wrote a story about a girl who’s a cab driver and she becomes a punk musician and she lived above CBGBs. And I was going to do that with Patti Smith. But it didn’t work out for a lot of reasons. Financial. It was hard to get money for films in those days. You had to write grants. I was not a very good grant writer. Also I was not interested in making a documentary about the scene, and, then again, not a fiction film. I wanted to explore. But then I heard The Sex Pistols were coming to America. I thought, “Here’s my chance.” I want to make a movie, and thought about how I could get money for it. I made a list of people that might be able to give me some money, called them up, and everyone said, “No.”. Didn’t surprise me. Whenever I get money or someone says “Yes” for a project, I’m always surprised. I’m very pessimistic.
Even today. These films I want to make are not Grade-A fucking-gonna-make-cash-and-have-great-distribution-circuit films, you know? I knew this prostitute in N.Y. who was Polish, very interesting. She was at a party and I got to know her. One day she gave me this telephone number and said, “If you ever need money for a movie, call this guy.” So, he was the last guy on my list and, as it turns out, he was the publisher of High Times magazine. I went to visit him and got there in the morning, and I only had a few more days to raise the money because The Sex Pistols were coming.
How much money did you need?
I had no idea, but I knew how much money I got eventually. I just wanted the cash. I didn’t go to see him with a prospectus, here’s the business plan, etc., etc. I just said, “I want to make a movie!” Tom Forcade, the publisher of High Times, at first said, “No.” He had his own problems. Had a problem with the company. He was seeing a shrink, drug problem, bad marriage, but quite dynamic. When I arrived, there they had a shipment of a certain kind of pot they were going to photograph, ‘cause the centrefold for High Times wasn’t a naked girl, it was pot. I arrived when this was all going on, highly illegal, but Tom had money. And then I was pissed off because he said “No”, and I hung out there the whole day with him until we had a confrontation, and then he finally said, “Yes.” I think he was testing me. You know Albert Grossman was there. Major manager for all kinds of people at the time, like [Bob] Dylan. He also wrote a book about Elvis [Presley]. And Tom, unbeknownst to me, was going to Atlanta, Georgia, where The Sex Pistols’ first gig was, which I first learned on the airplane. Tom was going to Georgia to buy footage from a movie that was made about two brothers called Oosh and Boosh …
Oosh and Boosh?
I’m serious. Directed by this guy named Jim West. And these were all pot dealers. The movie was called “Polk County Pot Plane Bust” . They shot the movie on 35mm. Real dope dealers who made a movie about a dope deal and a plane that went down. It was a fiction, but about the real thing. All based on their experiences, real true redneck people. A lot of pot was coming from there. So Tom saw this footage, the movie was shit and he said to me, “Okay, I’ll finance this movie about The Sex Pistols”, finance the shooting of it – it hadn’t been made yet – “but I’ll only do it if you re-edit this Pot Plane movie.” So that was the deal. I said, “Of course, I’ll do it.”, A few days later I met Tom and he lived in a loft back then not far from where I was living. So, I went to seal the deal. It was 40,000 dollars in cash. Tens, twenties and hundreds.
So, he was keeping with the drug-deal allure – like a kind of mafia hand-over, nice new crisply stacked bills in a duffle bag?
Yeah, totally. The money was counted on the floor in the loft. We put it in piles. He gave me this suitcase and said, “You carry the money.” It was the first time I’ve ever been in a helicopter. We flew from Manhattan to the airport at La Guardia, or JFK, whatever it was, can’t remember. And I almost got killed right away, because I ran towards the rotor blades in the back not knowing how to approach the thing. And Tom grabbed me and said, “Bend your head down!” I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a helicopter but it’s very disorienting to be near the thing. Put your head up too high, you can get it chopped off. This was the beginning of the adventure for D.O.A..
Tom stayed in a hotel there and I had this suitcase of cash and was doing my thing. Eventually, we asked The Sex Pistols if we could shoot them and the Hell’s Angels, too. But even with or without the asking, we would have just done it anyway.
So, what kinds of problems did you run into during the shooting? You mentioned it was dangerous.
We had two 16mm Eclairs broken by bodyguards and cops. These are like $25,000 cameras, a real ordeal from beginning to end. By the time we got to San Francisco, I was calling cameramen from around the country because I was recognized. I had a confrontation with Bill Graham who said, “You can’t go in, I know you’ve been following The Sex Pistols …” But I had guys going in and filming stuff outside the concert. After a couple of concerts I realized I wasn’t really interested in shooting just performances. I was more interested in shooting the crazy stuff going on around the thing. That’s what I was concentrating on. I cut my hair really short to look like a business man, dressed in a suit and jacket to look different and serious. Every time we went to a gig, we had to have a new strategy. It was like fighting a war. We never got permission, even to this day we don’t really have permission.
After all that, when I got back to N.Y., which was during an intense winter that year, I thought I needed to get the background scene of punk, so then I went to London. Tom said, “Here’s a bunch of money, go to London.” That’s where I shot all the backstory stuff. That’s a quick history of the making of that film without a lot of details.
How about the part of the film in London? How did that come about?
In London, Sid had called the assistant who was working for me at the time, Chris Alwitz, who was a journalist for the NME [New Musical Express] and wanted us to do an interview with them. We went to shoot that. When we were in London, you could feel that The Sex Pistols break-up was a big thing. The scene seemed finished, although The Clash was still around, and for a couple more years.
After I returned to the States, a few months later Nancy died – she was killed by Sid and then Sid died. And then Tom Forecard, my producer, committed suicide. It was the first and last time I was in the World Trade Center. His body was cremated and we took him up top there and scattered his ashes across New York. If Tom had been alive, I wouldn’t have been able to make the movie I wanted to make, because he was scared of the film. He wanted to make a more conventional film. The day he died, I ran to the laboratory and put everything in my name, snuck the material out and eventually made the film.
So, you really think he would have intervened?
I don’t think the film would have been made. I did finish the “Pot Plane” film for him. It was called The Smugglers and it was finished after he died. I made a film that was actually shown in America on the drive-in theatre circuit because it was made during that time, which I thought was kind of cool. I don’t have a copy of the film; I have to get one. It had a fake Bluegrass soundtrack. I think they got a Jewish Bluegrass Band to play the music. These people were the antithesis of that. They were hardcore rednecks who were smugglers. Right-wing pot smugglers.
So, that’s the story of D.O.A. But that story is similar to the story of every movie I make: it’s never easy. I’ve always been more interested in the adventure because the adventure gives me the fuel to make a certain type of film. I know it’s a horrible story – okay, a weird story behind the production, with Tom and everything – but it’s a story that is important to me and goes alongside of the making of the film. Both stories are important to me. The experience actually outweighs the film product.
You never know what’s coming with the experience?
Exactly. A challenge.
Speaking of creative challenges in the process of your filmmaking, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Gringo (1984) and John Spacely and the idea behind this film. This seemed somehow to be a challenge for you in the sense of the tottering between fiction and documentary. How has fiction informed your work? With what you’ve been telling me here about the weird circumstantial stories behind the making of the films, you could certainly think that truth is stranger than fiction. You told me before the interview that you are now considering making a fiction film, even a science-fiction film. What was the point of departure for Gringo? And do you want to ‘move on’ to fiction?
Again, it was a very practical thing for Gringo. You have to realize that, at that point in N.Y, the culture scene was fuelled by drugs, by massive amounts of drugs. Not necessarily in a negative way. It was part of the package. I was interested in that part of it. No one was really dealing with it. There’s a huge political side to this thing, too. The Lower East Side, which is where I was living and where the fuel for the whole N.Y arts scene was coming from, was a Latino neighbourhood. Latinos existed in the neighbourhood as people on welfare, right? When the drug thing came in, it was a way for them to make money and to also inject a lot of money into the neighbourhood. You wouldn’t have had this kind of explosive cultural thing happening in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in N.Y. if it hadn’t been for drugs. I was interested in drugs in that respect, too. You have to realize that people from all-over the Tri-State area were coming to N.Y. to cop drugs. They would come downtown and leave a lot of money there, in clubs. This was spreading. People were creating music because their girlfriends were dancing in clubs as strippers or they were selling drugs and financing themselves. Probably every band that had to do with the CBGB’s rock ‘n’ roll thing in N.Y. at that time was somehow touched by this.
So bands were dealing drugs?
Or their girlfriends. It was the trickle-down theory. The clubs were doing it. You couldn’t go out without having to confront that in one way or another, or you did it yourself. Or you sold drugs in order to finance your art or your own drugs. That’s just how it was. That’s what brought me to Gringo.
The idea for Gringo came out of a very specific reality, which is that I wanted to film things that were actually going on, using real people. But a lot of things happened off camera. I would hang out, for instance, for a week and watch things, then I would write a few notes about what I saw, and then we would stage it to duplicate it. For instance, the conversations I would see people having while they were shooting up drugs in the shooting galleries were really amazing. So, I would watch that and then I would get these people together – the ‘actors’ – and we would do a scene and have this spontaneous fucking insane conversation, because as soon as you have a couple pounds of heroin and cocaine there, things get weird. These were real things, not necessarily scripted. I would maybe throw a word in or a catch-phrase off camera to lead a conversation. I would film John Spacely where he lives, on a rooftop, and would do an interview with him, but not set it up as an interview. He would talk to the camera. Everything was real. But it was not documentary real. It was real in terms of putting elements together that make up a reality that I saw, but I was re-composing it.
If you look at the film it’s pretty well organized and framed. It’s all lit for instance. We tied-in to the street posts, put light on things. I don’t think anything was shot without light. Except for the wide-shots; we had no choice there. It was kind of done in a neo-realistic style, where you have the reality guiding you, telling you how to shoot, but not necessarily having the reality being filmed. Maybe a fly-on-a-wall kind of thing. That film took three-and-a-half months to film. It was a long tedious process and almost all of it was shot at night.
Did that answer the question? I think I forgot the question.
I was just interested in the thin line between fiction and documentary that’s reflected in Gringo. The observational fly-on-the-wall versus the fly who has something to say, injecting and influencing the story.
I was never interested in fly-on-the-wall documentaries in any of my films. Even the very first film I made, which was more like Walter and Cutie (1978). I don’t know if you saw that film?
Yes. It’s wonderful.
That’s documentary, but it’s not. I think I was influenced by a slight Andy Warhol kind of thinking, but more in the direction of documentary, and less pretty people.
I think it is exactly this element in your films, which is sort of difficult to get a grasp on, that element of intervention, documentary, but not quite, that I like so much. There is a sense of serious involvement with the people that you are dealing with. The pariahs, the outlaws, the low-downs, weirdos, whatever, but there’s such a tenderness and care that comes across which can only be communicated through your intention of expressing your involvement.
It does involve that: thinking about them, caring about them, hanging out with them, getting to know them as well as you can, not necessarily becoming their friends. If you go into a friendship place, I think you are in trouble. I never did that and try not to do that. You do need some objectivity.
But you do need to build up a trusting relationship to your protagonists.
You don’t want to destroy people. They need to feel that. With the subject matter in my films, it would be very easy to destroy people. This is just as valid as anything else. They are not investigative films where you are going in to investigate perversions, or, sexual orientations, or even drug problems or those kinds of things. Or the music scene. Not ‘topic’ films. You know, I don’t even look at these films as being documentary or not. They are just my films.
Take On Hitler’s Highway, for example. It was an immersion into the reality that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the highway. It was finding a way to look at life based on how I think it is connected to this idea of the highway. I think the highway was just the metaphor. For me, all of Poland is a highway. No matter where I shot in Poland, it was like a highway for me. A lot of those scenes didn’t even take place near the highway. But they all reflected the situation that takes place on or near a highway. The history of the highway and what it represents. The place the highway had in Polish history at the time when I shot the film. Now the highway has been destroyed and has been replaced by a real highway. So all these little communities that the highway went through are suffering the same fate like a lot of communities in the States where they build a highway to circumvent a city and the city is falling apart. These little places where these hookers would hang out on the highway don’t exist anymore. It’s been upgraded and made to go as quickly as possible to get through. It was, in fact, not that long. But it had a long cultural history because it was built by the Nazis before the war even started. It was the main highway in Poland during the Communist period because they didn’t build highways – didn’t have enough money. It was a main thoroughfare. So, it has all this accumulated history.
Some people who have the seen the film in Poland now have said, “Wow, too bad we still didn’t save that highway, because it has nostalgia.” It only exists in little patches. It was very special. In fact, it really is too bad that they didn’t preserve it, because it was quite a unique experience what it provided during the Communist period in Poland. Weird things happened on that highway, which I filmed that I didn’t include in the film, like a speed-racing world record was set on that highway. Now when I arrive in Krakow at the airport, all the cars that pick you up are named after the guy who set that record, who apparently became a big car dealer of BMWs. The film is more of an expressionistic documentary.
Keeping with Hitler’s Highway, maybe we can talk about the trilogy “The Fabulous Art of Surviving”. You made D.O.A. and the film about Johnny Thunders, then, of course, Is Dee Dee Home about Dee Dee Ramone, which actually came about through your making of Born to Lose, right? You had interviews of Dee Dee in Born to Lose. To me, those films feel almost like a trilogy, at least extremely connected, personal in the sense of your development in N.Y. and experiences with certain movements there. “The Fabulous Art of Surviving” is clearly meant to be a three-pack and addresses another personal level for you. Can you talk about that a little? You were living in France at the time when you started these films and found funding for them here …
Yeah, the idea of the trilogy started during the making of The Boot Factory. There’s no way I could have known about Hitler’s Highway had I not been on it. I discovered that highway while I was filming The Boot Factory. We took a ride to a music festival that takes place on the German-Polish border and there were 250,000 kids, people, there and I drove on that highway because the boot-guys were selling their boots at this festival. And I noticed the weird vibe on the highway and thought how I’d like to make a film about it.
Then as I was editing Hitler’s Highway, I wrote a story about my mother and showed it to a guy from Arte-France and he said, “Let’s make this into a movie.” So the trilogy was born in time, not all at once. The third part, East of Paradise, was something I always wanted to do. There was always a plan to do something with my mother’s material, my mother. It was the kind of thing where I just didn’t have the courage to do.
To confront her story?
Yes, exactly. And I just didn’t know how to do it until I discovered it should be a story about myself and her. When you talk about this stuff in retrospect, after you create it, it sounds like you figured out all these problems as you were going along. But the creative problems I had to solve were being solved as things were in progress, and not necessarily at the beginning stages – sometimes the very late stages of the editing, for instance – because they are journeys of discovery. So, when I filmed my mother, I stayed with her for 3 months and I hadn’t spent that much time with my mother since I was 17 years old. I went back with her and slept on the floor and filmed her story. Her story covers her life and when I shot that she was 83. It was huge and the bulk of it is not used in the film. I only used a short part of it. Still, I had to shoot it all to see where it would lead me.
I discovered what I really wanted to use in the editing room. Even when I was shooting, I knew that her saving this little kid – her objective in Siberia – was a really good thing to hang something on. But I wanted to go further. So, I shot her telling her story where she went to Pakistan, India, Africa, England and then America, which is quite a tragic story. And then her life with my father – they didn’t get along together. But I didn’t use any of that material because it was sort of redundant in a way to this one thing that she talks about. Even though the situations are different, they have elements of duplication – except for the American part. It became more difficult to talk about that part because she talks about the relationship with my father. When she starts talking about that, she becomes a different kind of person. It’s like what you mentioned before about the Johnny Thunders film: the myth of my mother’s life. She destroyed the myth of her life by talking about my father in this bitter way. I don’t think anybody wants to watch a bitter old lady talking about something. It was a long story.
I didn’t use any of that material, but maybe someday I will because maybe someday I will make a film about my father. He’s dead. But I didn’t get along with him, which makes it complicated.
Where the film was really difficult to put together was the second part, because it’s made from archival material shot over the years. That was difficult for me to enter that place; I resisted it the most. Even though I knew I was going to have to deal with it, I didn’t understand the form of it, or how to give it form. Because there is a voice-over involved, music. The idea of music in there – the second part of the film is wall-to-wall music. And, I discovered as I was making it, I needed to have the music wall-to-wall. The music does not work as music tends to in film – as an emotional enhancement. This is different. I didn’t want to come in with a lot of different music, so I had to reflect on a certain arc in history, be selective. It took me months to do that and then to get all that footage to France, and go through it all and find the right pieces. Again, creative discovery. It felt instinctive in a way, but these elements that I shot and used were so dispersed. And to show a narrative or give them a cohesion was a real challenge.
When you were done with the trilogy, how did that feel?
It was difficult. It was like, okay, I’m finished with this. This is a weight off my back that I don’t have to deal with again in my life. It changed my attitude towards filmmaking.
It took pressure off me.
So you felt like you needed to let go of something, release something?
I think so. It was like going to a shrink, you know. But not for like just 6 months … this was my whole fucking life. All my films were like going to a shrink. And this was like the final thing I had to go through. And, I must say, it has been difficult to think about films after East of Paradise because I just don’t want to replicate my techniques, my subject matter, things I’ve done before. I mean, I haven’t made that many films, but they all have to do with certain journeys, turns I’ve taken in my life that I wanted to document. There are still a lot of films that I shot that are in my closet that I hope to edit them now. For example, I shot a bunch of footage in New Orleans in 1993 and I would like to make it into a film. Willy DeVille is in there. There’s a bunch of stuff, but I just didn’t bother or get around to making them into films. They are still a part of the big picture, my life. Reminds me of Tony Buba in a way; you know how he documents the time in his town over those years. A history. A span of 30 years or something. After East of Paradise, I wanted to do something different. I want to explore the reality around me, but in a different way. Maybe even a departure from documentary techniques.
You mentioned you want to make a science-fiction film? Another thing you mentioned was a documentary in a small town about tanning salons or the people around them?
Yeah, I do want to make a documentary in the States. But it has to be done on terms that I understand. I’ve lived here in Paris now for a while and I don’t just want to go to the States and do a film as a voyeur.
You feel you’ve lost touch?
A little. It seems like I’m always around people that are interested in fucking suntan parlours.
How odd …
I think Johnny Thunders probably would have liked suntan parlours.
Practical purposes. A new kind of shooting gallery … whatever. I have a whole series of photographs that I took for the very first time in one of those sun-tanning gadgets while I was in Frankfurt last year at the festival with you.
Really? Got to admit, the lighting in there is weird …
Me and my daughter, family photos. Great lighting possibilities. Gee, I hope we are covering all the stuff you’d like to cover …
Sure, sure, in a round-about way. But I would like to ask you what you’re going to do now. You obviously have some good backing here in France for your films, which is important, and the sense of rootedness, home, what you went through to make the trilogy. Will you make a ‘French’ film? Would you consider it?
I would consider it. I would have to get ‘lost’ in France. I have to get lost in something to find something, you know? I don’t know what I am looking for until I find it. So having the family structure to live in cuts off certain possibilities [Laughs … Odile laughs …]. I can’t just go out and get drunk every night or whatever, get lost.
The weird thing is, is that America is now becoming ‘exotic’ to me. But it is an exoticism that I know about and that is interesting. Any time you have severe problems in a culture, it is a great time to make a movie. The French, of course, have problems, but maybe they aren’t as serious as they are in American. At least that’s how I see it. Generally speaking, there’s a pretty big bourgeois reality across the board here in France. Everything is pretty comfortable, even if you don’t have that much money. Okay, of course the banlieue is different. I am attracted to doing something about the banlieue, but I don’t want to go cultural-slumming, you know. I need to keep it honest. It is very easy to point a camera and objectify something in a way that is not honest. The language is also a problem.
Have you ever considered making a film in collaboration with someone here in France?
That would be difficult for me. I am very selfish. It would be hard to share the directing. There are plenty of other things to do. I just wanted to mention one other thing. Did you see Diary of a Married Man (2005)?
That was filmed at the same time that I filmed my mother’s film. So I was working on that on the side. Diary, which is an underground reality in Utica, is kind of a model for how I would approach subject matter in the States, but not stylistically. There’s a cultural void there that I would like to explore. There is an underground in America, and as I said before, not in the cities.
And who do you want to show the ‘underground’ to? How is the reception of your films here in France?
The reception of my films around the world is stronger than in America. It’s not because they aren’t well received in the States, but because there just aren’t that many venues for the films! University circuit, films festivals. It’s difficult to get to the public in America. Okay, TV works, but that’s different.
Have your films run on PBS [Public Broadcasting Network Channel/US]?
Way too clean. PBS is very whitewashed. They pretend they’re not, but they only go so far. If you started wiping off the gloss, showing the real truth, they lose interest. You have more opportunity in Europe to screen films like mine. But it is a struggle everywhere. I really like screening my films outside of the States. Actually showing my films in the States makes me a bit nervous like when I showed East of Paradise in Utica for a couple hundred people, a demographic that never sees alternative cinema. People were there between the ages of 16 and 90, isolated folks from non-mainstream. After the screening, everyone wanted to talk and they said how they would like to see more of these kinds of films. Meaning people are interested; there is just little access. That’s why film festivals are so important, but the thing is you can’t make a living having your films screened at film festivals.
I can’t make a living organizing film festivals either!
[Both laugh.] The American model for independent cinema doesn’t really exist here in Europe. The American model is “Finance your film with credit cards!” Outside of America you get finance from television, etc. Very rarely do people make things out of their pocket. I wouldn’t. I do still, okay, but with very little expectations of selling it. Because if you don’t get a TV deal before production, it is going to be very hard to sell it after it’s made. You know, a good example of American Independent Filmmaking is the Sundance Crap Shoot. Over a period of a year, they receive a couple thousand films. Some get chosen and there’s a crap shoot there, where a buyer comes in, etc. But I am not a fan of Sundance.
Because the last thing I would want to have on my film is a “Sundance-Approved Film”. That means it is kind of like a step above PBS. A certifiable alternative culture! Not interesting.
Yeah, there is a certain Sundance flavour to their selection. A bit gritty but always a bit sweet too. Nothing goes too awry …
Right. A very big concept in the Sundance spectrum is redemption. All the films selected seem to have an element of redemption in them. They even have that workshop at Sundance for screenplays – all about happy endings, creepy happy endings. But I don’t want to end this interview on Sundance!!
Yeah, that would be like a kind of creepy happy ending! Product placement … [Kowalski laughs]. So to placate the cinéastes out there and end with the beginning: Who has influenced your work? What films have you seen recently that you liked?
Well, I can tell you the films that really influenced me in the beginning. I mentioned Italian Neo-realism. All of them, including the obvious one: Bicycle Thieves [Ladri di biciclette, Vittorio de Sica, 1948].
There is a documentary tradition that I didn’t like so much that influenced me in another way – the American documentary films that were made by the Maysles Brothers, Albert and David. That didn’t interest me. That filmmaking was very technocratic.
The big thing with Direct Cinema was the portable camera, portable sound. It was like fly-on-a-wall filmmaking. It was not an involved kind of filmmaking they were doing. I don’t think they were involved in their subject matter. There was a certain exploitation quality that I didn’t like.
Perhaps because of the lack of the interview – the interview serving a function in terms of interaction?
No, I just think they were technical kind of people and not really creative. Most of those films are about ‘shooting’. It’s about the shooting. Most of those films by the Maysles were edited by women.
True. So many of the Maysles films are edited by women, Charlotte Zwerin, Ellen Giffard …
Yeah. And there was a disconnect there with all that footage. The formula was for them, “Let’s buy 100 rolls of film.” A role is about 11 minutes long. In 100 roles you’ll have this story. Now, I’m not saying that these films are bad, but what I’m saying is that I did not connect emotionally. Something was lacking that made me upset. But, at the same time, you had the Andy Warhol films and Ken Jacobs. My influences are mixing those two together.
The other film that came later on that really influenced me was a film called The Harder They Come , a reggae film by Perry Henzell. It’s a great film and it put reggae music on the map. It had the same structure as Bicycle Thieves except it took place in Jamaica, great soundtrack. I didn’t like Woodstock [Michael Wadleigh, 1970], for instance. I didn’t like the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter , but I like Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues  because it had a real commitment, involvement and understanding. It put everything aside and went beyond the music, didn’t care about it. The Harder They Come fits into that model, Neo-Realism, music and a cultural backdrop and you have a story about a guy that has to succeed at something. Quite simple. If you look at it, you think, “Is this a documentary, or not?”
Any other films that had an impact on you?
Another one would have to be The Battle of Algiers [La Battaglia di Algeri, 1966] by Gillo Pontocorvo. It looked like a documentary, but it wasn’t, of course. It had such a political passion to it. So well-made.
You know, I was interested in another kind of film; I was interested in people who make films that are not your ‘normal’ male, upper to upper-middle class male figure.
I really liked Shirley Clarke’s films and they had a major influence on me. Again, they were documentary, but not exactly documentary. They were creations that existed because of her force of will to make something. She had a very hard time making these films – not to mention that she was also a junkie. She was from this very, very rich family background. Her great-great-great Grandfather or whatever invented the ‘self-tapping screw’.
The ‘self-tapping screw’! And that money trickled down throughout the family and it allowed her to do what she did and to live in the Chelsea Hotel for 30 years and make her crazy films. She was a crazy personality. And I met her … Well, I met her daughter, too, and got involved with her daughter. But when I met Shirley, I was so impressed by the idea of being an artist. She was a pure artist in every way, to the point where she was a difficult person to be around. Her films and her personality, the films she made – the way she went about making films about black men and the black situation – all her films were ‘fiction-type’ films and a lot were about the black reality. And what was she? An upper-class Jewish woman with a lot of money, but very generous in all ways. Spiritually, financially. She was generous about how she looked at life in New York. Her films had a big influence on me.
She did a film called Portrait of Jason (1967), which was shot in the Chelsea, I think. And all it is is a black drag queen standing in front of a fireplace talking to the camera. And she is asking him questions. It is very amazing.
Her films, conceptually, had a big influence on me because I saw that it is not complicated to make a good film. Because whenever somebody thinks about making a film, you always think about the complications, set-ups and stuff. In fact, film can be very simple. And perhaps the simpler it is, the more powerful it can be. That film had like 20 cuts in it. Very minimal. Watching this person perform past the point of … you know, when you see this freaky person for the first few minutes, it might be interesting, but then you get bored by it. But then you become re-interested in him, how it all develops with him talking for so long. You’re not watching much more than his body language and then you start discovering things about yourself in this footage that you have never thought about, only because you are confronted with this hour and a half of time.
There was another film that had a major influence, a really primary influence, a film about Charlie Mingus called Mingus by Thomas Reichman , a filmmaker who committed suicide. I actually was his assistant for a while. It is a film about black culture, but not the ‘official’ black culture. Charlie Mingus was being evicted by the city of New York. He was firing his shotgun around in that film. He started rapping in that film, before rappers even thought about it. Very powerful film. What also interested me about that film was that Tom’s voice was in that film. Shirley used her voice in her film as well. But with Tom’s voice, he was engaged in the film and that fascinated me. You’ve got to remember, we’ve seen or heard a lot of that since those days. But then it was very unique and powerful. I felt the filmmaker there. That interested me – seeing, for example, a microphone in a shot. The filmmaking process in the film.
What happens if you see the microphone? What if you don’t? It seemed so significant. And I’m not talking about a little Lavalier mic, which I hate seeing in films. I’m talking about like a boom microphone …
Yeah, sometimes you see those in porn films.
[Laughs.] Exactly, yeah. That always was my favourite moment! I love that! It brings a documentary film to life in another way.
I guess porn films are like documentaries in a way too, technically speaking.
Yeah! So those are like my major influences …
And a film that you’ve seen recently that you liked, fiction or otherwise?
[Long pause …] I’m just going to give you an answer that is a really silly answer. But I saw some underground films last month made by local artists. The experience of watching these films was great and I’ll tell you why. There’s a very good jazz drummer in Utica. A guy made this hour-and-a-half movie about someone fixing-up a building or something. Artistic. A guy was acting in it, but it’s documentary. And the drummer was composing a soundtrack live while the film was rolling. It was shown on a little screen, inside of a gallery in a storefront. And it really excited me. It was like, “Fuck you. I’m going to do my thing, here.” It was really refreshing.
Another film that I saw recently that I really liked … hmm. Hey, how about I tell you about a film that I hated?
Sure. Why always something you like? That’s just as legitimate…
It was a Woody Allen film.
Match Point . I really hated that film. Some New York Times critic said it was one of the best films ever. And the film was so dead to me. Very calculated. Not because of Woody Allen. Don’t get me wrong, I like Woody Allen. But this film was like Woody Allen, without … something was missing in a very big way. He made it in London. The fact that it was hyped so much and is quite artificial structure and needed the gun so badly.
Okay, not that recent a film, but still…
Did you see the new Martin Scorsese, The Departed (2006)?
No. I don’t like Scorsese that much. I’m not going to mention any major Hollywood film here. Because I don’t like to do that …
That’s being pretty consequential. I actually liked The Departed and was pleasantly surprised.
I saw a film at the Alba Film Festival, a Canadian film, a fiction film made by a Turkish-born director, Hakan Sahin, who had lived in Canada for around 15 to 20 years and he really wanted to express what he felt about winters in Canada. The film is called Snow . It was lovely. It had this amazing scene, in the foreground this scene is happening … and there are these two having a coffee in a café and are talking. Actually, the acting was a little difficult, but it doesn’t make a difference, really. And in the background, through the window, you see this snowmobile going back and forth. Somebody is goofing off and then the thing flips over. If you are from Upstate New York or Canada, you can really relate to this scene, this machismo that is going on in the background. Very poetic film.
Well, I think we should wrap this up. Maybe just something brief about a future project? Thoughts for the future? Closing statement [laughs]…
I was in America recently. Last year I was also in America, in L.A.. I lived there for three months and was writing the science-fiction screenplay for the project that I’m working on now. And I was working with a writer and staying in a hotel in L.A. and I didn’t have a car because I purposely wanted to walk around. I was very impressed by America, but not in a good way. I was impressed by how far it has gone into the corporate reality and I don’t think it is salvageable anymore.
America has hit the point of no return?
Yes. If anything, the country will have to have a gigantic tragedy. No more gas, power blow-out, I don’t know. What happened on this trip was that the writer I was working with, his girlfriend, she was an actress, not a known actress, but a frustrated actress. She committed suicide as we were writing this thing. We didn’t write anymore and I somehow connected this to how dysfunctional America is, and how people are lost and disenfranchised. She checked into a hotel and jumped out of a window. L.A. is a flat place, it was just weird. It was like lemmings jumping. I just had this feeling that America has to do something really radical to survive or people will just lose it. You see people just giving up.
Or they go amok …
Yeah, that, too. Now I’ve become more interested in doing something in America, a science-fiction film that has to do with this kind of reality that we are talking about.
Where will you film it? Maybe you don’t want to say. Is it a science-fictional world or a real city?
It’s not going to be a big city, like N.Y. or L.A.. I have no interest in N.Y. or L.A. on the screen.
On that note, it was actually nice to talk about America a little having just left there.
2007 Winners and Losers (75 mins) – world premiere at the 60th Locarno film festival on Piazza Grande
2005 East of Paradise (105 mins) – Best Film in the orizzonti Official Section of the 62nd Venice Film Festival; Best Documentary among all selections of the 62nd Venice Film Festival from Doc/It (Association of Italian Documentary Filmmakers); Best Documentary filmmaker in Cinemex FICCO in Mexico; Special Award in Competition Features in Split in Croatia
2005 Diary of a Married Man (22 mins) – Grand Prix for best international short film in Lyon in France
2003 Charlie Chaplin In Kabul (Full House In Malalai; 60 and 90 mins)
2003 Camera Gun (29 mins)
2003 Hey Is Dee Dee Home? (63 mins)
2002 On Hitler’s Highway (81 mins) – Special Jury Award IDFA, 2002, Amsterdam; First Prize, Cinema New Vision, 2003, Alba
2001 Born To Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie (104 mins)
2000 The Boot Factory (88 mins) – Best Creative TV Documentary of the Year from SCAM (French author association)
1997 Punk, Rap, Grunge – a series of shorts for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (The Robert Johnson Story, Fan, Alan Freed)
1997 Under Underground (3 x 60mins)
1991 Chico and the People (20 mins)
1991 Rock Soup (81 mins) – San Francisco Golden Gate Award; Special Mention at Sundance
1984 Gringo (87 mins)
1984 Breakdance Test (6 mins) – First Prize New York Short Film Festival
1981 D.O.A.: A right of passage (90 mins) – First Prize in Paris Music Film Festival
1979 The Smugglers (90 mins)
1978 Walter and Cutie (25 mins)
1977 Sex Stars (85 mins)